Syrian rebels, families evacuate besieged town near Damascus
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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hundreds of people left the besieged town of Khan al-Shih southwest of Damascus on Monday under a deal with the Syrian government for safe passage to other rebel-held areas, a monitoring group said.
The Syrian government, helped by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, has steadily quashed armed opposition to its rule in the remaining pockets of resistance around the capital using a series of army offensives and evacuation agreements.
Damascus describes the deals as reconciliation or settlement agreements, but rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad say they involve the forcible displacement of whole communities from opposition areas after years of siege and bombardment.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the civil war, said 10 buses had left Khan al-Shih for rebel-held Idlib province, but that it was unclear if they were carrying fighters themselves or only their families.
As part of the deal, around 1,450 rebels and 1,400 relatives are due to leave the town, the British-based Observatory reported. The process will require 42 buses, in addition to nearly 25 ambulances for injured civilians and fighters, it said.
Local sources in Khan al-Shih told Reuters earlier that 3,000 people, half of them fighters, were expected to evacuate the suburb, most of them on Monday.
The United Nations estimates 12,000 people have been besieged in Khan al-Shih, where a Palestinian refugee camp is located, for years. Heavy clashes and air strikes have rocked the area during the past month until the evacuation deal was agreed last week.
Khan al-Shih is the only town not controlled by the government along a major supply route between Damascus and government-held territory in the southern province of Quneitra.
In previous such deals, insurgents have been allowed to keep light weapons. Rebels in Khan al-Shih handed in their heavy weapons on Sunday as part of the deal, state-affiliated media and the Observatory said.
Syrian state-run Ikhbariya TV, broadcasting from near Khan al-Shih on Sunday, said 3,000 to 4,500 remaining people would be taken back into government-controlled areas, citing sources within the local administration.
Syria's Minister of National Reconciliation Affairs, Ali Haidar, whose department administers the agreements, could not immediately be reached for comment. Haidar has previously said such amnesties are "a workable model to bring security and peace" after more than five years of war.
The conflict pits Assad, supported by Russia and Iran, against an array of mostly Sunni rebel groups, some backed by Turkey, Gulf monarchies or the United States.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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